Profile of a hero

I had the privilege recently on doing a profile story for The Digital Bullpen on USF freshman and former US Marine, Justin Gaertner. Gaertner lost both his legs in Iraq at the hands of an improvised explosive device, but after making a remarkable recovery has gone on to let nothing stand in his way.

Today, with the help of prosthetic legs and a handcycle, he competes regularly in marathons, zombie runs and other athletic endeavours. He is going back to school and majoring in business and he is an inspiration to all who know him.

In the remote, war-torn region of Marjah, Afghanistan, no sound is more terrifying than a ringing cellphone.

For U.S. Marine Cpl. Justin Gaertner, it was the last sound he heard before an improvised explosive device, triggered remotely by a cheap plastic cellphone, detonated in the sand beneath his feet, propelling his body into the air like a ragdoll before tumbling limply to the desert floor.

“At first I didn’t know I was the one who got hit,” Gaertner recalled. “My initial reaction was to find my rifle and secure the area.”

“I tried to stand up and my legs wouldn’t work,” he said. “Thats when I realized they were gone and I just laid my head down in the sand and closed my eyes.”

Within 15 minutes, Gaertner was airlifted to the nearest military base where he would begin his long, difficult journey home.

Please give his story a read.

The Longshots

The Longshots

The Longshots

by Gareth Rees


The loud ping of a composite bat rings through a summer evening, signaling trouble.

St. Johns Longshots pitcher Michael Langlois was barely finished with his delivery of the game’s first pitch and already he had missed location, and now found himself staring down a missile heading right back toward him with incredible speed. Langlois threw his glove up to protect his face, sending the dusty yellow softball caroming off the tip of his leather mitt and into left field for a leadoff single.

The next two batters Langlois would face drew walks without seeing a strike, before the cleanup hitter, clad in gray basketball shorts and a green Buffalo Wild Wings T-shirt, drilled a towering home run clear over the left field fence where it bounced dangerously between traffic on southbound Little Road. Grand slam.
The first inning would end 4-0, but the Buffalo Wild Wings team would continue to add on, eventually winning 25-3, sending the Longshots home with their seventh consecutive loss.


The Longshots are the epitome of sport futility; their name far more accurately representing their chances to win each week than the style of their home run balls. In fact, since forming in spring 2012 in the Pasco recreational men’s softball league, the Longshots have failed to hit a single homer.

They also never win.

“We are literally the worst team in the league,” said catcher Brian Donahue. “We are dead last in runs scored and runs allowed. It’s embarrassing.”

The team was started by a group of friends looking for something fun to do in their free time. When they began, few of the players had any experience playing organized baseball, a fact that seemingly went unnoticed by the members of the Longshots as they embarked into their first season. None of them had any idea just how competitive adult softball could be.

Losing followed; with it came frustration and embarrassment.

“We thought we could just run out there and win,” said Donahue. “I don’t think we were prepared to be so terrible.”

The Tampa Bay area knows a thing or two about losing.

The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers played a full 14-game season without tallying a single win, and would lose a record 26 straight games before notching the franchise’s first victory. The Tampa Bay Rays spent 10 years as the laughing stock of the American League East, consistently losing 90-plus games, before finally turning things around in 2008 under new ownership.

But those teams were full of professionals, being paid to continue playing despite the rigors and frustration of continued losing.

“Losing every week isn’t fun,” said first baseman Carlos Arevelo. “There were definitely times were I wondered why I keep coming out here each week.”


The 11 members of the Longshots form a disjointed semi-circle around the tailgate of a black Ford F-150 Super Duty, parked in the Mitchell Field Recreation Center parking lot. Arevalo is sitting on the tailgate, eyes glazed over, smoking a cigarette.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty sick and tired of losing,” said Arevalo, unloading weeks’ worth of pent up frustration. At 35, Arevalo is the oldest member of the team and has taken on a role as de-facto coach.

“I don’t come out here to lose every week,” he said. “I’d rather spend Thursdays with my family than continue to play like this.”

The Longshots suffered a particularly ugly 36-3 loss that night. After playing the first three innings to a 3-3 tie, the Beef O Brady’s sponsored team exploded with a 17-run inning, fueled in part by a series of Longshots fielding errors.

Many of the games seemed to go like that. The Longshots would play well for two or three innings before one major mistake rattled their confidence and next thing you know a tied game or slim deficit was yet another blowout.

The tongue-lashing delivered on this night is in stark contrast from how team post-games went during most of the losing streak, usually revolving around beer and chicken wings. Continued losing had begun to take its toll on Arevalo and he let his teammates know it.

Arevalo singled out center-fielder Garrett Dunton, telling him that he will no longer bat leadoff because he failed to hit the ball on the ground once during the game and also dropped a ball in the outfield.

Dunton joined the team with zero baseball knowledge, but possessed incredible speed that quickly proved him a great asset on the base paths. He routinely beats out ground balls for singles and has been repeatedly told to avoid putting the ball in the air since he does not have any power and is significantly less likely to reach base with a pop up.

He also is very hard on himself when he plays poorly.

The next morning following the tough love lecture, Dunton tells other members of the team that he won’t play with Arevalo anymore, prompting Arevalo to let the Longshots know he will no longer be playing with them, and his brother, Louis, is also quitting.

Perpetual losing has claimed its first victims.


Despite the loss of their veteran presence, the team soldiers on. However, the Longshots have proven skilled at just one thing: losing.

There are more blow outs; 24-5 to Shenanigans Irish Pub; 18-6 to Cavalry Chapel 2; and a 15-0 shutout in which a different Beef O Brady’s team scores five runs in three separate frames. During the second inning, the Longshots loaded the bases with no outs on three consecutive singles, only to ground out to the pitcher three straight times and fail to score.

“It’s mental,” said left-fielder Daniel Endonino. “We can play great for a couple innings, and then we make a couple mistakes and everyone’s head is down and it all unravels.”

“They just have no energy out there,” said Chelsea Heijl, whose fiance plays shortstop. “Everyone gets quiet and it just doesn’t look like they are having fun anymore.”

“We’re going to win one day,” said Dunton. “We just need to keep trying hard.”

“If we could just get that first win,” said Donahue, “we’d start to feel more confident. I think we’d stop making the little mistakes and begin to really grow from there.


The ping of a composite bat rings through the October night.

Michael Langlois sprints out of the batter’s box heading towards first base after hitting a ground ball to the left side of the infield. It’s a close play but Langlois hustles and extends his foot to the bag ahead of the throw; “Safe!” the umpire calls.

The Longshots are trailing 8-4 in the third inning and their small contingent of fans, made up of girlfriends, wives and moms, don’t think much of Langlois’ leadoff single.

Dunton follows up with a double, and third-baseman Mike Childers draws a walk to load the bases. A confident team sees the rally brewing and seizes the opportunity. The Longshots however, are anything but confident, and consistently have found ways to squander these rare opportunities.

The next batter rolls over an outside pitch sending a helpless double play ball towards the shortstop, who fields the ball and–miraculously–slings it past his second-baseman and into right field, allowing two runs to score. Donahue doubles, Endonino singles, and suddenly the game is tied. An opposite field triple then gives the Longshots the lead. The first lead they had held in over six weeks, and the first lead they’ve ever had after two innings.

As the game entered the seventh inning (softball games are only seven innings long, but most of the time end in a mercy rule before then), the Longshots are hanging onto an 11-8 lead, and the players are starting to feel it. Some begin to think what they will do if they win this game, but don’t want to vocalize it and risk jinxing anything.

A deep fly ball to center-field is caught with a diving catch. One out.

A line drive is deflected by the third-baseman but fortuitously caroms right into the shortstop’s glove. Two outs.

A left-hander hits a weak ground ball that the pitcher fields himself and flips to the first baseman. Ball game. The Longshots win!

For the players of Cavalry Chapel 4, the sight must have been extremely confusing: The Longshots charging the mound, burying each other in a screaming dog pile of exuberance, as if they had just won the World Series.


The Longshots would lose their next three games, and finish the season 1-9, but to Donahue and the rest of the Longshots, the season was a success.

“On that night, we were superstars,” said Donahue.

“It made it all worth it,” said Endonino. “All the losing was washed away in that one instant.”

Tagged ,

Are two parties enough?

In a few hours, Mitt Romney will spar with Barrak Obama in the second of three Presidential Debates in front of millions of viewers across myriad television networks. The two men will try to convince American voters why they are best suited to run the country for the next four years. But, starkly missing from the debate are the voices of the other officially recognized political parties.

While attempting to buck that trend, Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala were arrested this afternoon while attempting to get into the debate hall at Hofstra University where tonight’s debate will be held.

After being denied entrance for close to 20 minutes, Stein and Honkala sat down in front of the entrance and draped an American flag across their laps, according to Long Island Report. What prompted the arrest was Stein and Honkala’s refusal to move after police informed them they would be arrested if they failed to move.

According to the Long Island Report, Stein told onlookers, “If you have done the work to get on the ballot, if you are on the ballot and could actually win the Electoral College by being on the ballot in enough states, then you deserve to be in the election and you deserve to be heard.”

When I read this news and saw the video, I was reminded of an interview I did with Honkala in a tent at a protest camp during the Republican National Convention. That interview is below.

Do these two have a point? If they are going to be on the ballot don’t we owe it to them to let them have a voice at the debate?

Video of the arrest is available on YouTube. My favorite part, a police officers’ extreme concern for the American flag.

Continue reading

The perils of live news

Today, a car chase from police that was being aired live on FOX News ended with a man committing suicide by shooting himself in the head. Despite tape-delay measures put in place by FOX, the shooting was aired live to potentially millions of viewers in the middle of the daytime with anchor Shep Smith yelling repeatedly, and unsuccessfully for FOX to cut the feed.

FOX immediately went to commercial and when they came back, Smith issued a heartfelt apology for airing the graphic video. From HuffPo:

“We really messed up,” Smith told viewers after the flop. He said the footage was on a 5-second time delay and shouldn’t have been aired. “We’re all very sorry. That didn’t belong on television.”

I posted about this on twitter as it happened, and then posted the youtube videos of both the chase’s unfortunate finale and Smiths apology. I almost immediately got some flak from a user named @TinaHatesCats for “making light of this”, which was certainly not my intention as I was doing my best to straight report the news. My tweet to the video included a warning that the clip was graphic and TinaHatesCats had every right not to click the link.

I explained to Tina that I felt it’s my duty to report the news and it’s her right not to click it. I did not air this footage live without warning, that was FOX’s fault and that is why it became a story. She called me an asshole and blocked me on twitter. Cool. BTW, Tina, I love my cat so you can go to hell. (This is a joke)

So, how does one handle this sort of thing?

Gainsville Sun reporter and Hearst Journalism Award winner Jon Silman recently came to speak to our Journalism class at USF and he too tweeted a link to the video with a NSFW tag. I asked him how he handled balancing reporting the news and the flak you might get from those that think we shouldn’t report on graphic events.

Thanks, Jon. And thanks, @TinaHatesCats

Here is the video. WARNING GRAPHIC.

Here is Shep Smith’s apology.

South Florida Bulls Are No Fan of Thursdays

I was lucky enough to get the USF Fall Sports as my beat for Dr. Garcia’s Advanced Reporting class this fall, which I am pretty excited about as sports reporting is my ultimate goal. I will be tasked, along with another student, to cover both mens and womens sports on campus this fall and write a minimum of 15 blog posts throughout the semester.

My first piece, examining the USF Bulls football teams struggles on Thursday’s, was published today over at The Digital Bullpen. I wrote the piece last Friday following USF’s Thursday night defeat to Rutgers but it didn’t get edited and published by student editors until this afternoon.

An excerpt:

USF now sports an 0-9 record on Thursday night games since 2007, when the then No. 2 ranked Bulls fell to Greg Schiano’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Since then, the Bulls have failed to tally a single Thursday victory under the bright lights of Raymond James Stadium, falling three times to Rutgers, twice to Cincinnati, twice to Pittsburgh and twice to West Virginia while being outscored 262-138.

Last nights clunker, that moved the Bulls to 2-1 on the year and 0-1 in Big East play, was marred by a series of miscues, the bulk of which belonged to senior quarterback B.J. Daniels who threw three interceptions on the night, finishing just 15-33 for 242 yards.

The rest of the piece can be found over at the USF Mass Comm departments digital newspaper, The Digital Bullpen.




A sobering tribute to 9/11 outside the Marshall Center at the University of South Florida

Like most everyone else that lived through that day, I still remember it perfectly.

Ryan Hanson opened the door of my second period AP Government class and told us what he himself had just heard, “Someone crashed their plane into the World Trade Center.”

The bell rang almost immediately after that sentence, and I rushed to Mrs. Bellerose’s computer class where I was a 3rd period teachers assistant, she had the TV tuned to the news. I didn’t leave her classroom until it was time to go home.

I had no idea at that moment just how much Ryan Hanson’s sentence would impact our lives going forward. No one knew.

Reporting from the RNC

Occupy protesters march through Tampa at the Republican National Convention

I have had the wonderful opportunity this week to intern at the Tampa Tribune during their coverage of the Republican National Convention here in Tampa. While I did not get inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum or see Mitt Romney I was spending my time doing something quite possibly more entertaining, following around the protesters.

My intern buddy Brandi Hollis and I spent the better part of the RNC week talking with protesters from groups such as Occupy Wallstreet and Occupy Tampa and seeing how they lived during their time here in the Bay area. Many people choose to focus on their picketing, rioting, violence and message, but few realize that these individuals are people too and have real problems.

While the threat of Hurricane Isaac hitting the bay cancelled the first day of the RNC, it also impacted the people coming to Tampa to be heard. Many protest groups were deterred by the storm and those living here in makeshift camps like “Romneyville” had to deal with wind and rain.

For many of the protesters, living in Tampa has been a challenge. Some are homeless, some are vagrants, but many of them came to town via buses or carpool and some don’t know how they are going to get home.

The experience during the RNC was invaluable and definitely one of the highlights of my young journalism career. I have chronicled some of the pieces I wrote for the Tribune below.

Protest Camps Nearly Deserted

On the last day of the Republican National Convention, as presidential nominee Mitt Romney is preparing to speak, the voice of the Occupy has gone silent.

Romneyville, a makeshift protest camp and tent city in downtown Tampa, is nearly empty. Those that are left are mostly homeless, hardly the fierce mob of activists that Tampa police had geared up for.

Fellow intern Brandi Hollis and I contributed to Tribune reporter Josh Poltilove’s Friday morning piece about the mass exodus of protesters from Tampa.

“Heading north to the DNC,” said Amos Miers, an Occupy organizer for a group he calls Resist RNC. “Neither party represents the issues of the people.”

A food truck supplied by the activist group Food Not Bombs that had fed Romneyville inhabitants for weeks already is gone, heading to North Carolina, according to co-founder Keith McHenry.

Across town, few protesters remain at West Tampa’s Voice of Freedom Park.

Katrina Oaks, a 26-year-old Occupy veteran from New York, said she and approximately 75 others would be gone by today on two buses bound for Charlotte.

You can read the rest of the piece over at the Tampa Tribune’s website.

Where have all the protesters gone?

Tampa spent $50,000 from a federal grant on security for the Republican National Convention and it seems to have paid off. Protests were minimal and the city made only 3 arrests during the week, a stark contrast to the rash of violence that took place during the RNC in St. Paul four years ago.

Tribune reporters Josh Poltilove and Rob Shaw wrote a piece in today’s Tribune on the dearth of activism here in Tampa this week. Myself and fellow USF intern Brandi Hollis contributed to this report.

Two dozen police officers lined the side of East Whiting Street one day this week to keep a watchful eye on about the same number of Ron Paul supporters making their way to the designated protest area.

Suddenly, the sound of a glass bottle shattering echoed through the area.

One of the protesters had accidentally dropped a cold drink. A couple of the demonstrators stooped down to pick up the debris so they wouldn’t litter the city’s streets.

That’s a snapshot of how the protest scene has gone so far in the shadow of the Republican National Convention.

The city of Tampa had steeled itself for the arrival of as many as 15,000 protesters marching through the streets. Giant fences were put up to protect government buildings and businesses. About $50 million – paid for with a federal grant – was spent on security, mostly for extra law enforcement officers.

After three days, however, only a few hundred to, at most, a couple thousand protesters have appeared, scattered around the downtown area. An estimate of a couple hundred dollars property damage to the city so far would be “on the high end,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

You can read the rest of this story over at the Tampa Tribune’s website.

A really really free market

Demonstrators prepare for the “Really, Really Free Market” event at Voice of Freedom Park. PHOTO BY JASON BEHNKEN

Some days you go to bed knowing you made your mother proud. Today is one of those days. I, along with fellow Tribune intern Brandi Hollis, had a story published in Wednesday’s Tampa Tribune. A real live news story! Forgive my excitement.

Here is the piece in its entirety:

By GARETH REES, BRANDI HOLLIS | Special to the Tribune
Published: August 28, 2012

TAMPA — Many of the protesters at the Republican National Convention preach a gospel against greed and for compassion and sacrifice for the common good. The country’s current economic policies, they say, favor a few of the rich at the expense of the many poor.

On Tuesday, some of them tried to show there’s another way, staging a unique market at Voice of Freedom Park where all the goods were free or bartered for and where no cash was accepted.

“Our goal is to show a contrast between the ideology of the Republicans and Democrats by having a really, really free market where everything really is free for everybody,” said Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs and co-organizer of the event. “Goods and services should be for us, the regular people, not for maximizing profits for people like Mitt Romney.”

The event began at noon; vendors peddled their goods from behind makeshift tables and booths.

“We’ve been asking for donations for a couple weeks now and today people are bringing their belongings in and just giving them out,” McHenry said.

“It’s all free, as all life should be,” said Jimmy Dunson of St. Petersburg as he opened his table for business. Dunson offered onlookers an assortment of goods, including old board games, tennis balls, fabrics and books.

“It is possible to have an economic system based on compassion,” said Dunson as marketgoers played with the free games and danced to music from a portable stereo.

Others offered more tactile goods including clothes, food and medicines.

Joe Lemieux of Spring Hill said he would accept a dollar bill for his herbal teas and organic food, but that proceeds would go to fund Occupy Hernando. Leftover items would be donated at the end of the day to local medics, said Lemieux.

Katrina Oaks, who has been at the park since Sunday, rummaged through a box of clothes and fabric looking for something to wear. Oaks has participated in Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Orlando, and will travel with a group of 75 others to Charlotte, N.C., to protest the Democratic National Convention next week.

She picked out several items, paying for none.

“It’s pretty much already been said, but I occupy because everyone deserves a clean place to live, to take a shower, and to eat,” Oaks said.

%d bloggers like this: